SCHOOLS in England are reeling in the face of rising child poverty, with a large majority of staff (79 per cent) reporting that they and their colleagues are increasingly having to divert from their allocated roles to deal with its impact, a survey by the Education Anti-Poverty Coalition reveals.

Over half (53 per cent) of teachers report an increase in the number of pupils struggling to concentrate on learning due to hunger and fatigue, compared to two years ago. More than two thirds (68 per cent) of all school staff, including support staff, say there are more pupils who don’t have money for enough food at lunchtimes.

The first-of-its-kind-survey of 1,000-plus professionals working in every role in schools in England was organised by the coalition which is convened by Child Poverty Action Group. The survey results, which represent the views of head teachers, senior leaders, teachers, governors, teaching support staff, administrators, catering teams and facilities managers, reveal a stark picture of schools increasingly dragged off their traditional remit as more pupils arrive in school not only hungry but worried about money and without the equipment they need to engage with the curriculum. The research shows that no part of the school system is untouched by child poverty.

The survey found:

  • Almost all (89 per cent) staff say child poverty in their school has increased in the last two academic years. (97 per cent of head teachers/senior leaders, 95 per cent of governors).
  • 88 per cent of school staff say more families in their school who previously appeared to be managing financially are now struggling to cope.
  • Three-quarters of school staff (74 per cent) say there is evidence that children growing up in poverty have fallen further behind their peers in learning in the last two years, compared to previous years
  • While 79 per cent of all staff say they and their colleagues are increasingly having to divert to poverty-mitigation tasks – for example dealing with dinner money debt, referrals to specialist services and sourcing food bank vouchers, hardship grants, children’s clothes and even home equipment like washing machines for families – this rises  to 92 per cent among headteachers.
  • At the same time, 51 per cent of school staff say schools have less capacity to support struggling families and children, with staffing cuts cited as one reason for this.

School staff in every role across England say they are noticing more families struggling with uniform and PE kit requirements (78 per cent) and more children coming to school in ill-fitting or worn-out clothes (72 per cent). Three quarters (76 per cent) of secondary school staff say more pupils don’t have all the equipment they need for lessons.

Asked which policies would have the biggest effect on reducing child poverty in their school:

  • 80 per cent of school staff said providing universal free school meals to all school children.
  • Nearly two in three (63 per cent) said increasing the amount of financial support low-income and middle-income families with children receive.
  • Sixty-eight per cent said more government help for families with school costs such as uniform and school trips.

School staff and governors  reported pupils stealing food from other pupils’ lunchboxes, complaining of being hungry and coming to school concerned about their housing and home situations.

This is affecting the children’s learning, with 84 per cent of all school staff say the effects of poverty on pupils’ ability to learn and participate in school have worsened over the last two years. A primary school teaching assistant in the East of England said: “Schools are becoming increasingly less about educating students and more about supporting families…” In the North West, a primary teaching assistant said: “Families are struggling financially and emotionally, and children are becoming more stressed and anxious. Pupils are not ready to learn.”

A member of staff at a Sixth Form in London reported, “absenteeism due to the costs of travel and also increased fatigue due to students undertaking more paid work to support themselves and their families.”

Commenting on the survey findings on behalf of the coalition, Head of Education Policy at Child Poverty Action Group Kate Anstey said: “Child poverty is ripping through our schools, warping the way they work and jeopardising children’s learning and life chances. Staff want to focus on children’s development but get sidetracked by dinner money debt. They want the Government to act and get more help to families. As urgent first steps, Ministers must widen eligibility for free school meals, boost help with school-related costs and increase child benefit. That’s the minimum needed to give staff their time back and prevent millions of children from falling even further behind.”

The Education Anti-Poverty Coalition, convened by Child Poverty Action Group, represents governors, head teachers, teachers, school support staff, PTAs and others working in education across England. All coalition members share a deep concern about the impact child poverty and hardship are having on the children they work with and the school system. They collectively call for action that will reduce child poverty. Signatory members of the Education Anti-Poverty Coalition are: The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), The Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY), Child Poverty Action Group, Children North East, The Children’s Society, National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), National Education Union (NEU), National Literacy Trust, Parentkind, UNISON and Newcastle University institute for Social Science.

* Source: Child Poverty Action Group